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I’ve been on both sides of the “codependence conundrum.”
It’s the one where we’re suffocating from a partner’s blame and simultaneously placing our locus of control in another’s hands.
It is always poisonous to the relationship.
When I was younger, I moved with my now ex-husband and new baby to a farm, 45 minutes away from the community where we had built a life. I felt isolated. I blamed my husband for all of it: for insisting we move to follow his farm dream, for my feelings of being alone all day as a stay-at-home mom, for my lack of social interactions. It was “all his fault.”
I tried to tell him about this at every turn. He would sit down on the couch next to me, and I would carefully explain my unhappiness, urging him to see how he was at the center of it.
One frigid day, as the wind whipped through the fields, I sat looking down at the long driveway that led to the road. No car would be turning down the drive to come to my rescue—not my husband, not my friends, not my family. I remember feeling almost nauseous at the thought. I sobbed downstairs while the baby napped.
And then I got to work. I joined a mom’s group in town. Flipping through the local circular, I found a skating class that met in the early mornings. I scheduled an informational interview at a private school where I might want to eventually teach. I found a babysitter. I made an appointment with my GP (general practitioner) to get on antidepressants.
With each little step, my brain rewrote its original diagnosis. No one else is responsible for your happiness or well-being. I felt good, better than I had in a long time, and yet, I still lived in the same place, under the same circumstances. Nothing major had changed about my life except my own perception of my power.
Later, I found myself in another relationship marred by blame. I thought I had graduated from the lessons of dependence, but apparently, I needed to learn them from another perspective.
It goes like this: over time, one partner in the relationship becomes convinced that the other partner is the reason for their lack of success. Someone else influenced their career choice, telling them what they thought they’d be good at. “If only “X” hadn’t suggested I apply for certain jobs.” According to one partner or the other, the ability to thrive was hampered by one thing: the other person in the relationship.
Carrying the weight of someone else’s experience—good or bad—is a monstrous task. It wears us down, as I’m sure it did my ex-husband. It makes the boundaries between two people uncomfortably porous, unclear where one person starts and the other ends. And it robs both people of their competence.
It also kills feelings. When we cannot engage with our significant other as an equal, as someone who stands on their own two feet, capable of handling their own emotions, it eats away at the connection. The relationship slips into the parent-child realm before independence emerges. We place all of our needs into the hands of our lovers turned “caregivers.” And as soon as that happens, the romance turns to mush.
Bad things happen. We all need to lean on people. We need support to manage the various challenges in our lives. And we can call on our partners and family and friends to help. But we cannot place them at the center of our discomfort or unhappiness. Even if they drink, say mean things to us, betray us, or lead us out to a farm in the middle of nowhere, they still aren’t responsible for our lives. We choose. Each day, we choose to save ourselves or not.